Unearthing Biggie’s Lost Recordings
A small U.K. record label has built a business on resurrecting golden era hip-hop demo tapes
While most of the world was frantically refreshing their Twitter feeds on Thursday night, hoping for the release of Frank Ocean’s Boys Don’t Cry LP, another small frenzy was taking place in a different corner of the internet. Chopped Herring Records — a tiny, independent record label based out of the U.K. — advertised that they would be dropping a new vinyl release that same night. The label has built a reputation for pressing up extremely limited edition releases, with print runs of no more than 500 pieces, usually digging up previously unreleased material from late 80s / early 90s “golden era” hip-hop artists, that were otherwise collecting dust in a basement somewhere. But this one was special, advertised only as “BIGGIE + UNKNOWN PRODUCER EP,” with no other information given.
Not that it was needed. Their site was overrun with traffic, crashing the server multiple times. A second try was attempted on Friday, as Chopped Herring periodically updated its Facebook page with status updates such as “THIS IS BEING DEALT WITH AT A TECHY LEVEL — WE’RE ON IT — PEACE” and eventually “SITE FUCKED.” After rescheduling the release for August 8th, 2016, it promptly sold out. Five hundred vinyl pieces disappeared within three minutes of being posted for sale.
The biggest question surrounding the release is simply, what is it? Most of the Notorious B.I.G.’s recordings were released when he was still living, while much of the archived material has been remixed and re-purposed for albums like Born Again and the inaccurately titled Duets, which featured a posthumous Biggie with three or four other artists on each track. But Chopped Herring head Bob Lipitch has revealed exclusively to Cuepoint the origin of these songs, as well as the identity of the “unknown producer.”
Lipitch — aka Pro Celebrity Golf — got his start in the music industry DJing in Manchester and working in a record shop called Fat City from 1992–99. Shortly thereafter in 2001, he set up Chopped Herring. As things revved up, the label began to press up vinyl of the lost demo tapes of obscure NYC hip-hop acts, such as Beatminerz-affiliate Shadez of Brooklyn, Dysfunkshunal Familee, and Prince Paul’s Horror City.
“It all started with a couple things. I was a record dealer based in London and New York, spending three months and New York, looking for collections and bringing stuff back. I ran into a dude there and he happened to know the Beatminerz. Their record collection was for sale and I went down and destroyed the place. Loads of great stuff, full sealed boxes of the Shadez of Brooklyn stuff, a box of white labels of the Shadez stuff, it was amazing. We got talking and it really started from there. I put the Shadez out, then another Brooklyn group, Dysfunkshunal Familee. Then Finsta Bundy —Finsta, who was originally in the lineup of Black Moon,” says Lipitch. “It kind of built up and went crazy. At one point I was doing four or five releases per month on my own. I am the only person that works here, overseeing every aspect of it. All of the legwork, the accounting, the packing up of records. I was in a rhythm of finding these things and then they came to me.”
As relationships with artists and within the industry matured, this strategy eventually evolved into pressing up lost demo tapes from better known, more beloved groups, such as J.V.C. F.O.R.C.E., Stetsasonic, and Masta Ace.
“There is something about it that’s fun. I’m not suggesting that we don’t move on with music, I put out new music as well. I do a combination of very obscure artists that didn’t even release a single; maybe they did a demo tape. A lot of demo tape stuff makes it into my hands, there’s a lot of trading going on. There’s that very obscure angle, where someone never got it together to press a record. And there might be something where a bigger artist like Masta Ace delivers what might have been his second album on Cold Chillin’ or what might have been the third album from J.V.C. F.O.R.C.E. on Big Beat. Then there was the Keith Murray demos, when he was called Keefy Keef.”
When it came time to give proper release to Keith Murray’s “Keefy Keef” demo, Lipitch had to go to great lengths to “resurrect” the reels.
“That was the first time I had to ‘bake’ some reels. The reels were old, from 1992 and Curt Cazal of J.V.C. F.O.R.C.E. had them in his possession. They have an oven in certain studios, used to bring back to life dead reels that are otherwise unplayable. What you do is, you put them at a certain temperature and then you cool them down. Then they will only come to life for about 24 hours, at which time you have to record them before they oxidize again. Literally bringing things back from the dead,” he explains. “That was the first project that we did that on. We had access to the original reels, which were given to a specialist studio that had that equipment. It was the first foray into a serious archiving job. That was really interesting. The record itself is like one of the most valuable on the second hand market that there are, consistently selling for $1000.”
Having captured his audience of passionate golden era hip-hop heads, Lipitch realized he could use Chopped Herring to introduce the world to new acts that shared that same mindset, pressing up then unknown artists like Vice’s Fuck, That’s Delicious stars Action Bronson and Meyhem Lauren, as well as currently buzzing up-and-comer Your Old Droog.
“I put out a [compilation] record called Welcome to the Great Outdoors by the Outdoorsmen crew, which was Mayhem Lauren, Action Bronson, J-Love, AG the Coroner, which was an introduction to Action and Meyhem, primarily. Nothing had been out in physical form prior to that… I also put out what is deemed to be Bronson’s best work, Dr. Lecter, on vinyl. They had previously only done CD-R’s of it,” Lipitch recalls. “Droog’s manager happened to be the same guy managing a group called Timeless Truth and I had put all of their product out. We already had a relationship and I had gotten a little rep starting with Bronson, taking a relatively unheard artist and taking it a little bit further.”
As it turns out, “the unknown producer” from the Biggie EP is actually someone quite well-known, Daddy-O of Stetsasonic. O had done some work on the first Junior Mafia album, Conspiracy, producing the songs “White Chalk” and “Back Stabbers,” neither of which featured full verses from Biggie. However there were two other recordings done during those sessions, both produced by Daddy-O and featuring some familiar words from B.I.G.
“As far as I am concerned, these two tracks are better than anything on the [Junior Mafia] album by far. They also happen to be the origin of a couple of well known Biggie verses, namely the ‘Wickedest Freestyle,’ which was actually written as a demo track for the Junior Mafia album over a Daddy-O beat. You can hear in the melody of the lyrics that that is where that verse comes from,” Lipitch says of the lyrics, which later was given release by Mister Cee as “The Wickedest (Freestyle).”
“Personally, I’m not a massive Junior Mafia fan, but I was like; ‘Oh okay, I’ll give it a listen.’ I had just done a record with Daddy-O with some of the Stetsasonic unreleased stuff from 1991–94 and we had a little working relationship. He asked if I would be interested in this and sent me some snippets. I think these are two of the best tracks that Biggie’s been on. I would say that because I’m selling it at the moment, but that’s what it is,” he laughs. “On the other side of the record is a proposed track from Freestyle Fellowship’s Innercity Griots album, also produced by Daddy-O that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another.”
Having heard both tracks, the second is easily identifiable as Big’s last verse on Junior Mafia’s “Player’s Anthem,” but over a jazzy, vibey 90s boom-bap beat, unlike the official single’s more polished Bad Boy sound.
“The other verse has been used on a Junior Mafia track, but this is definitely the first instance of it. What happened presumably is that it did not make the cut for the Junior Mafia album and it got reused in another context. I don’t have an original verse that nobody has heard before, but I was just stunned that this thing had fallen into my lap anyway,” he admits. “It was all a bit crazy, not something I was expecting. I had spoken to some people that said they were aware of these demos, but they hadn’t heard them. I think if they were around, they probably would have made the Complex ‘Top 50 Hip-Hop Album Demos,’ which was a fairly cool list of stuff. I’m really confident about the music. I think there might be an initial “Oh, Junior Mafia…,” but then you listen to it.”
Having heard the songs myself, the recordings are indeed phat, as we used to say. But this brings up the obvious question, as to whether or not Chopped Herring has ever faced any legal repercussions from rights-holders or sample sources in regards to pressing up these demos.
“No, and I’ve done 170 of these. They are very small runs. I feel that illegality in the music industry is based upon money, not morality. So when someone says ‘You sampled my record. I was an artist and I worked as a musician for many years and now you’ve come along and taken it.’ I don’t know how that holds up, I think it’s all about money. If you’ve infringed on some potential customer, that’s when people are interested. When it’s a small number of copies, it would appear that you can get away with it,” he says nonchalantly.
That may be true, but in the case of the late great Frank White, things might be different.
“We’ll see what happens (laughs). Bottom line is, the artist signed a contract that says he is the rights owner of this material. In terms of sample clearances there isn’t enough money to be made. Yeah, maybe I’ll get a cease and desist on this one, but it was recorded in Daddy-O’s studio, the tracks never came out, he paid for the session, produced the tracks. So far, so good.”
With such a rabid demand for Chopped Herrings products, it also begs the question as to why they don’t do larger runs.
“I don’t want to get anywhere near satisfying the demand. Rather than it being an elitist thing, it’s more about the hunt; partaking in the digging. It’s a metaphor for the search or a comment on how easily accessed things are on the digital age,” he reveals. “This goes back to finding a rare record or recording something on the radio that a DJ played and taking it into the store and playing it on a Walkman for someone. Everything is about that for me. It’s about making music special.”
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